Don't pass up last chance at safer food

Billings Gazette

by Editorial

The year 2010 may go down in history as a bad egg, literally and figuratively. Amid the economic downturn, Americans suddenly had to worry about whether fresh eggs were safe to eat.

A massive recall of eggs dragged on for weeks last summer and affected products shipped to some Montana retailers. That recall occurred a full year after the U.S. House passed its version of food safety legislation. Since the House approved a food safety bill, the Food and Drug Administration has announced more than 85 recalls of regulated foods, including 14 that covered all 50 states, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Salmonella accounted for 42 percent of the recalls while listeria was the pathogen in 38 percent and other microbes accounted for the rest. At least 1,850 people got sick from recalled food.

Finally this week, the U.S. Senate approved its food safety bill.

Importantly, the Senate bill includes an amendment from Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, which would prevent small producers (those with less than $500,000 in annual sales) who sell mostly in local markets from being subjected to regulations designed for the big food businesses — the size of businesses involved in those 50-state recalls.

Like the House bill, the Senate version would increase inspections of domestic and especially imported foods; it would give the FDA authority to order recalls, which now are voluntary on the part of food producers.

However, there are differences between the two bills. Overall, the House bill is more stringent on regulation and more expensive for the government. And Tester's small-producer exemption is only in the Senate bill.

Those differences as well as a technical glitch (involving fees the Senate bill creates to help pay for increased inspections) now threaten passage of any food safety legislation this session.

If Congress were working the way it's supposed to, the House and Senate would form a conference committee to work out their differences. Both chambers then would probably pass the conference bill.

But with the uncertainty and rarity of getting any major legislation through the Senate, a conference bill is unlikely to pass this year as time grows short for the lame duck session.

The Senate bill is certainly better than no bill. America's food safety standards must be updated to protect U.S. consumers in the global food market.

An amazingly large bipartisan majority in the Senate approved the Food Safety Modernization Act with a vote of 73 to 25. Both Tester and Max Baucus of Montana voted with the majority.

House leaders must find a way to preserve this food safety legislation. We call on Montana's lone U.S. representative, Denny Rehberg, to encourage his House colleagues to support the Senate bill when it comes to a vote.

As Tester said, “This bill as amended strengthens our food safety while protecting the jobs and livelihoods of folks who put good food on our tables.”